Saturday, June 4, 2011
Interview with Jonathan Potter
Jonathan Potter is the fifteenth interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail, from New Jersey to Washington state. A bio note follows the interview. Thanks for your great responses, Jonathan!
1. House of Words is an especially well-arranged first book. Can you discuss the composition of House of Words (did you envision these poems as part of a bigger project during the initial writing? how did you decide the ordering of the poems and sections?)
I put the earliest version of the manuscript together about ten years ago, but it was arranged very differently. The title and prologue piece ("Build me a house of words...") were the same, but that's about it. I gave that original manuscript to some friends of mine, Jon and Tiffany Webb, who were talking about starting up a small press. The manuscript sat in Mrs. Webb's desk drawer while she produced a succession of babies (with Mr. Webb's help, of course). We all sort of forgot about it. But when they inherited a little bit of money a couple of years ago, the Webbs revived their small press dream and dusted off House of Words. Webb and I had also started a blog together in 2004, so the small press idea and the book both sort of morphed with the blog, Korrektiv, which has now picked up several more great writers and has become Korrektiv Press. Anyway that's part of the background of the book.
The composition of the poems themselves spans a twenty-seven year period, and the earliest one in the book—"Wordsong"—dates back to when I was seventeen or eighteen. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that. But I I like the poem, and it serves the broader themes of the collection, so I don't mind owning it. And some of my favorite poems in the collection were written in my twenties. I suppose it's a fairly common phenomenon with first books of poetry to throw in assorted mongrel items from earlier phases of one's life, or to keep shuffling and reshuffling one's poems into different arrangements and notions of how they could form a book, with different poems dropping in and out of the mix. In my case, though, I'm forty-six and I've dabbled in writing poetry—not real productively, but steadily—since my late teens. So I've done a lot of shuffling and reshuffling over the years. And my worldview has undergone some major shifts, too, I guess, but one thing I discovered when I sat down to really boil them down into this book was that I am preoccupied with some core worries and tendencies that haven't changed much, deep down, even though at points along the way some major shifts occurred. I had several ultimately unhappy dealings with womankind and then became a Catholic and then a librarian and then a husband and then a father. So the collection follows that progression somewhat, but there is also a core coherency—I hope there is, anyway—and a freewheeling movement through time.
At one point, I had a bunch of limericks in the manuscript and several of those were written specifically with the book in mind. They sort of parodied the overarching house and word and faith and doubt motifs. I thought they scanned just fine, even though Matthew Lickona claimed otherwise, but I finally decided I wanted the book to maintain a slightly higher air of dignity. Just slightly. So I threw them out. The one poem that was written pretty late in the process, when the manuscript was on my mind a lot, was "Insomnia"— the last poem in the collection. Otherwise it was more a matter of reshuffling and selecting poems that weren't consciously written to be part of the collection as it now stands. As far as the overall arrangement, I will say I had some fun with that. The book as a whole plays off the sonnet form, where each poem could be counted as an iambic foot and the whole book can be viewed as a sort of big mystic sonnet. I like how I pulled that off.
2. One of the 5 epigraphs for the collection is a quotation from Walker Percy's incredible novel, The Moviegoer. Why Percy? And why Lonnie?
In addition to providing thematic and imagistic touchstones for the different sections of the book, I also wanted the epigraphs to hint at where I'm coming from with the poems, who my influences are, what sources are important to me, and what sort of context to place the poems in. I started reading Walker Percy in college, after stumbling across a review of Lost in the Cosmos while avoiding reading whatever it was I was supposed to be reading at the time. I found it on the shelf in the library and was immediately floored by it. Back then I considered myself to be a sort of zen-beatnik-Lutheran, and reading Percy definitely set me on a path, intellectually, that would lead to the Catholic Church. It took a long time, though. I kept returning to Percy along the way, and did a master's thesis on The Moviegoer and Lancelot in 1990. I finally got confirmed a Catholic in 1995, and, after the Holy Spirit, I mostly blame it on Percy.
I thought that passage from The Moviegoer was perfect for the first section of the book for several reasons. First of all, it's talking about how unadorned words and language can be fresh and new and full of wonder. That's one theme I tried to thread through the first section of House of Words. In the passage, the protagonist Binx Bolling is referring to his younger half-brother, Lonnie, who suffers from cerebral-palsy. Binx sees that Lonnie gains an advantage in certain subtle ways through his affliction, and one of those advantages is a paradoxical reversal that occurs with regard to language. The worn-outness that language is subject to is reversed and Lonnie's belabored speech somehow taps into the joy and wonder that is otherwise easily lost in what is referred to elsewhere in The Moviegoer as "everydayness." Secondly, Binx talks about Lonnie's speech as being "like a code tapped through a wall," which I thought in terms of imagery very neatly coincided with my book's central image of the house and its walls. Thirdly, there is the mention of love, and that is the transcending theme—I hope—of not only the first section but the entire collection. And of course Lonnie is the chief emblem in The Moviegoer of a simple but profound Catholic faith, a Christ-like and buoyant seriousness that culminates in redemptive suffering and death. So there's a lot packed into that epigraph and I couldn't believe my good luck when I located it and realized how perfect it was for what I was up to.
3. "Elementary Education" reads smoothly. The first stanza begins with an observation, but the majority of the poem is a conversation. Could you discuss the structure and composition of this poem and, possibly, how else your employment as a librarian has informed your sense of poetics and the written word.
I would consider this one of the lighter poems in the collection, both in tone and content. I like the poem because it does capture, in a not-too-serious way, one sort of reference desk interaction which I think would be immediately recognizable to any reference librarian. There's a wonderful library-themed comic strip called Unshelved that gets a lot of mileage out of this sort of thing. It is one of those poems that flowed fairly easily and naturally out of the real life event that it documents. "The First Sign of Spring," which comes right before it in the book, occurred in a similar fashion. They are both relatively lighthearted recountings of inauspicious real-life encounters, the humor of which buoyed my spirits at the time. They're almost like "found" poems, really, and my job was mainly to serve as the secretary recording the funny little epiphany that transpired. Easy work.
My employment as a librarian hasn't really directly informed my inner life as a poet, but I think it does provide good mental exercise and other subtle nourishments, in addition to a paycheck. As an academic librarian, I can sort of be in but not quite of Academia. I can tap into the riches of the scholarly world without getting too entangled in the politics of English departments and such. I work mostly with the health sciences departments at my institution, but I'm also lucky as a member of the faculty to get to serve as a third reader every year on a number of MFA theses in poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. That's been a nice way to get to know some of the students and faculty that pursue creative writing seriously in an academic setting, and to get a glimpse of what's happening among that ilk without having to get my hands too dirty. Aside from that, there is a mystique about libraries—even as a health sciences librarian—that complements my identity as a writer such as it is. The mystique was stronger for me before I ruined it by becoming a librarian, but I can still recognize it, and there are fantastic depths to be plumbed there for sure.
4. "Self-Portrait with Truck" is a great narrative poem. A few other pieces in the book feel as if they could also exist as stories. Do you make a conscious decision or plan to choose poetry over prose, lines over sentences? Have you ever written fiction?
Maybe it's that I'm by nature a dabbler. And poetry lends itself to dabbling. Writing a novel doesn't, really. I would love to write fiction, and I've tried, but mostly I've failed at it. I get to about page ten and grow tired of the characters and their concerns and they of me and we part company. It's on my bucket list, though. I'll be very upset with myself if I find myself on my death bed, or free falling with a parachute that's not opening, or about to have a head-on with a semi, or choking on a big piece of steak I forgot to chew, and realize I never got that novel written. One of my prayers is that the Lord preserve my life long enough for me to write one, even if it's a very bad one, which it most likely will be. It could turn into a Wandering Jew sort of scenario, though, where the Lord answers my prayer by keeping me alive, but I'm just never able to get past page ten and so I'm cursed to wander the Earth until Judgement Day. Does that answer the question?
I guess I should add that my primary impulse in poetry is probably lyrical. Even with the free verse and more narrative oriented poems in the collection, I'm always concerned with the melody running through the lines. But it's a fascinating and nagging question for any writer as to what form to frame an idea in. I could see making the truck poem into a fictional or memoir piece in prose, and in a way maybe the poem could both stand on its own and serve as notes for something like that. The overlap in forms works the other way, too. Walker Percy wrote poetry in his youth and pretty much totally abandoned it as a mature writer, but his novels are infused with the most elegant sentences. Parts of The Moviegoer, especially, are just pure poetry. It really hits you if you listen to it read out loud. Likewise, Kierkegaard says somewhere that he considered himself "a sort of poet" and that his prose kicked the ass of many a poet's poetry for sheer loveliness. I'm paraphrasing, but he did say something along those lines. He said he would walk around rehearsing sentences out loud to himself sometimes, for flow and rhythm, before going back to his study and writing.
5. You've already mentioned Kierkegaard and Percy as writers whose work and thought have either influenced or interested you. Are there are other writers whose work you keep returning to--and any Catholic writers, in particular?
Wallace Stevens. I'll claim him for a Catholic, even though it was a death-bed conversion. To me he's the ultimate paradoxical poet-sage, existing on a higher poetic plane than anyone else while at the same time existing in reality as an insurance agent. There's something wonderfully Christ-like about that. I guess his insurance work was itself insurance against the inevitable failure of poetry. Before Stevens, but in a similar vein, it was E.E. Cummings who first blew my young mind. Reading Tulips and Chimneys—and everything else I could get my hands on by Cummings, when I was a teenager—turned me from thinking I wanted to be an aerospace engineer when I grew up to thinking I wanted to be a writer, or at least a reader. The liveliness of the language and the insistent individuality of his style are what appealed to me, at a time when I was attracted to punk rock and the beatniks for similar reasons. Then, of course, I went through a period of feeling embarrassed that I loved Cummings, because it dawned on me that he's a favorite of anemic adolescent girls. But now I'm happy to admit I can still pick him up and enjoy. He wasn't a Catholic but I think a case could be made that he had Catholic tendencies despite his Unitarian upbringing. (Can you tell that claiming all my favorite writers for Catholicism is a pastime I regularly engage in?) Then there's Hopkins! No trouble claiming him as Catholic. A splendid anomaly, right up there with Stevens and Cummings, probably on an even higher plane in fact.
Other writers that hit me like meteors and left craters in my psyche that I continue to revisit—in no particular order: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dickinson, Yeats, Updike, Kesey, Greene, Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Merton, Flannery O’Connor. Those last four, along with Percy, certainly helped grease my path of conversion. I also went through a time of thinking I'd become a Benedictine monk, so there are writers and writings in that sphere that impacted me and continue to shine in the back of my mind: St. Benedict's Rule, of course, but also Kathleen Norris and Esther de Waal—both non-Catholics but the best contemporary writers on Benedictine spirituality.
A few other contemporary writers I keep reading are Tom Robbins, Sherman Alexie, Jess Walter, Ron Hansen, and Mary Karr. They all write beautifully but of the bunch only Karr and Hansen are explicitly Catholic. Robbins is a marvelous heretic, Alexie has a big dose of Spokane reservation Catholicism in his blood (with reservations) and my best guess about Jess Walter is that he's a sympathetic agnostic—he has an essay somewhere about marrying a succession of Catholic women and contemplating getting baptized. I keep thinking of more writers to add to this chaotic compilation, but I guess I'll leave it at that.
6. What you been writing since the publication of House of Words?
Not much, I'm sorry to say—a handful of poems, a few blog entries. I wish I could say I had something in the hopper—and I do if by that you mean my brain—but not much on the page. I'm still recovering from the trauma of bringing House of Words into the world. Aside from that, I have a full time job and two little kids, and time management issues. I've been trying to promote House of Words, but I could be doing more as far as readings and such. And I've been trying to do my part for Korrektiv Press, lending my editorial ministrations to Brian Jobe's novel, Bird's Nest in Your Hair, which is due to come out in the next couple of months. And I imagine I'll do the same for Joseph O'Brien's collection of poems the press will be publishing later in the year. Jobe and O'Brien are both amazing writers and I'm excited about participating in the process of seeing their work into print. Hopefully Matthew Lickona will have a manuscript ready soon, too, and I'll get to help deliver that to his crowd of adoring and long-suffering fans who have been waiting for a follow-up to the elegant and fantastically hyper-Catholic Swimming with Scapulars.
The Korrektiv folks are also planning to put together a collection of essays celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of The Moviegoer, so I'm working on something to contribute to that. We've also talked about writing a bunch of short stories based on Walker Percy characters, a sort of fan fiction thing, and I have an idea for a story involving Binx Bolling coming to Spokane to visit Stanley Kunchen during the World's Fair of 1974. Kunchen is a minor minor character from Spokane that appears in The Moviegoer, one of Binx's colleagues at the conference he attends in Chicago late in the novel, and I think it would be fun to capitalize on that connection with my hometown. And then there's the above-noted desire to write a novel. I have about three that I've started and let shrivel on the vine. I may try to revive one of those or start a new one ... any day now.
Jonathan Potter lives in an old house in Spokane with his wife, children, and dog. He is the author of House of Words (Korrektiv Press 2011). His poetry has appeared in Z Miscellaneous, Christianity & Literature, and Poems Niederngasse.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 5:25 PM